A Jellyfish Shines a Light for Science

The jellyfish Aequorea victoria has a ghostly presence. But it also has a claim to Nobel Prize fame, through a protein it produces known as Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP) that turned out to be immensely useful for biological research.

GFP was discovered by marine biologist Osamu Shimomura (1928 – 2018) who won the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his discovery. After many years of hard work. Shimomura and his associates finally managed to isolate GFP from the jellyfish in the 1960s. And what he found astonished him – the protein glowed green when illuminated with ultraviolet light! Shimomura recalled the arduous work that led to this discovery:

We needed a large amount of aequorin to carry out this study, so we returned to (the harbor) every summer for more than 10 years, where we collected and processed about 3,000 jellyfish a day … In 1972, back at Princeton, we succeeded in determining the structure of (the protein). By 1978, we had achieved a general understanding of the aequorin luminescence reaction.

Osamu Shimomura with close friend and collaborator Toshio Goto (right) in 1956, shortly after crystallizing Cypridina luciferin, behind a counter-current distribution apparatus.

GFP is now widely used in molecular biological research where it serves as a genetic marker to study how cellular functions take place, for example protein tagging and gene expressions. GFP is also used as a biological tracer that helps scientists understand the colonization, proliferation and spread of bacteria pathogens in live animals.

A humble jellyfish has indeed shone a light for science!

Osamu Shimomura (left) receiving his Nobel medal in 2008. He was one of three sharing the prize in chemistry. Photo by AP photo/Scanpix Sweden, Anders Wiklund

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